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Armed with an 84-percent approval rating and a campaign fund approaching $200,000, Mayor Ralph Becker has decided to run for re-election this fall.

That official announcement took place Sunday.

What is less pronounced, but pivotal, is the behind-the-scenes jockeying that has all but greased the track for a second Becker term. Either by strategy, serendipity, or subtle coercion, a line of would-be challengers has wilted away — at least until 2015.

Forget Rocky III. Don't count on a contender from the Legislature. And call the only possible City Council challenge what it is — a loner's long shot.

Former Becker backers who are upset over a panhandling crackdown, Jordan River encroachment, talk of erecting a city on the Northwest Quadrant, or fencing dogs in Parleys Historic Nature Park all will sit on the sidelines in November. Insiders say the GOP may not even run a rival in the officially nonpartisan contest, leaving a field of fringe opposition.

This despite cries from partisan progressives, who insist a series of "frustrating" moves makes Becker vulnerable from the political left.

Becker, of course, is skeptical. He has been working the phones for money for months. And he expects a "vigorous" challenge to hold onto City Hall. Veteran politicos, academics and even activists in the neighborhood trenches see it otherwise.

"He's irritated little constituencies, but over all I would say that most people are pretty satisfied," says former City Councilwoman Deeda Seed, an occasional Becker critic. "I just don't think Ralph's beatable. It could be a situation where you just have some fringe candidates that run. But you're not going to have a serious contender."

Indeed, seeing people line up to snatch Becker's job would be a surprise, according to Quin Monson, assistant director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

"Who's unhappy with the job he's doing?" Monson asks. "He is the kind of mayor who is doing all the things that people who liked Rocky Anderson appreciate, but without making anyone else mad about it.

"There's no blood in the water. There's no sense that there's any weakness to take advantage of."

Team of rivals • For months, buzz persisted about a possible progressive coup from two Democratic Becker critics: Former Mayor Rocky Anderson or outgoing Salt Lake County Council Chairman Joe Hatch.

Both groan about certain policy moves, but neither are gunning for the mayor's seat. Political observers say Hatch may instead chase the Utah Democratic chairmanship.

"I don't know of anybody who's considering running," Anderson shrugs. "It surprises me in a sense, because I know there's been so many unhappy people who would otherwise be a part of his base."

Anderson laments that Becker "almost destroyed Library Square" — the mayor's first (discarded) choice for the police headquarters — and "reneged" on the off-leash designation of Parleys Historic Nature Park.

"If anybody was going to jump in, they would have to do it immediately," Anderson adds. "It takes a good year to carry on a campaign, especially against an incumbent."

The foe that Team Becker most feared — Democratic Rep. Jackie Biskupski — also is taking a pass. This time.

Biskupski, who has endorsed Becker for 2011, wants to complete her two-year legislative term, then "take a break" to concentrate on a 2015 run at City Hall. "That timing's much better for me," she says about a mayor's race in five years. "It gives me more time to get my feet on the ground and learn more about the details of the city."

Biskupski, who says she doesn't expect a strong challenger this fall, notes she has an "understanding" from Becker that he will not pursue a third term — making it a more winnable open seat. Becker says there have been no such conversations, and no deals. He also declined to address a third term, saying he is too focused on the second.

"People who have political ambitions are also strategic," Monson says. "And that means waiting for the right opportunity to run for office."

That may also describe Councilman Luke Garrott, a political science instructor from Chicago, who has tried to steer Becker further left. Garrott says he will not run this fall — "probably not the next time either" — but notes his support for Becker is conditional, mostly on any decision to develop the city's Northwest Quadrant. "That's the big sticking issue for me."

Other could-be contenders are flatly not interested. Former Councilwoman Nancy Saxton, who is suing Becker for building a soccer complex alongside the Jordan River, is out. This despite dismissing Becker as a "figurehead" who "hasn't accomplished much" either at the city or in the Legislature.

Seed says no way. Dave Buhler, who was trounced by Becker by nearly 30 points in 2007, says he has run his last race. No so-called dog people are formidable or financed. And Police Chief Chris Burbank, who has won fans with his moderate stance on immigration enforcement and panhandling, lives outside the city, rendering him ineligible.

That leaves Councilman Soren Simonsen, who says he is getting "a lot of pressure to run."

The liberal urban planner from Sugar House says Becker's Parleys dog park veto "is just another in a long line of things over the past 18 months that are extremely frustrating."

He argues the mayor cites science to protect Parleys Creek, but ignores the same science regarding the sports complex by the Jordan River and the Northwest Quadrant. "We have an administration that can't really decide what it wants."

Perhaps too sobering for Simonsen: He won re-election to his District 7 seat in 2009 by a mere 12 votes.

A liberal legacy? • Becker maintains his liberal credentials are solid. And he wants four fresh years to build more.

"I'm energized every day," he says, sitting over the holiday break in his recently-purchased 1927 Tudor home near the University of Utah. "This is a phenomenal time to be engaged in Salt Lake City. Having this job, particularly, just suits me well."

Becker says his internal poll, with those atmospheric numbers, is a "confidence builder." And he brushes off criticisms over planning and the environment. "Anytime that someone is as proactive as I've been, there's always going to be different points of view," he says. "That's the nature of the job.

"There hasn't been any single issue, in terms of the reaction to it, that has affected my decision."

Flipping through his 2007 "blueprint" to build what he dubs a "great American city," Becker notes that only five of the 67 pledges have yet to see significant action.

The mayor is quick to point out his strides in gay rights that include passage of a mutual commitment registry and a nondiscrimination ordinance. He has launched a sweeping sustainability push, hoping to rewrite outdated city laws. He has painted miles of green bicycle lanes, lobbied for a Broadway-class theater, patched relations with the Legislature, and helped steer the redevelopment of North Temple. The latter will include a rebuilt viaduct and TRAX line to the international airport.

Becker's first three years also include major expansions in recycling, more money for west-side upgrades, additional energy savings, and a focus on streetcars that paid off in the form of federal stimulus dollars to build the Sugar House line.

"There was a lot that I put on our plate for the city," he says. "We've done a lot."

The administration also managed a budget crisis, though Becker was criticized for killing Youth City Artways as well as handing control of the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center to Salt Lake County.

Even so, the campaign has $128,000 in the bank and pledges for at least $50,000 more. Becker also has landed Matt Lyon, a tireless whiz on retail politics and turnout, as his campaign manager.

Despite his frequent trips to the Beltway, Becker insists he has no plans to pursue a job in Washington, D.C., his hometown. After all, the skiing is too good here, his girlfriend is here, and there is much to tackle should he earn a second term. (Expect details in Tuesday's State of the City address.)

"I have no illusion that this is not going to be a competitive election," he says. "This is Salt Lake City."

Ralph redux • Without a credible candidate on the horizon, Monson predicts a rival may surface in the form of a progressive upset over a single issue.

"My guess is that person would draw some attention to [token] issues and may even draw some concessions from Becker. But they wouldn't win."

The noisiest niche to pan Becker is dog lovers upset over losing some access to the Parleys gully. But their snarl may be bigger then their staying power.

"None of our groups are organized, or serious, or financed enough," says Kate Bradshaw, a lobbyist and spokeswoman for Millcreek FIDOS (Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space.)

That may be because Becker has dealt with his controversies in an "honest, reasonable way," according to Seed. "He's not a flame-thrower."

Despite the odds — a Republican has not won the city mayor's race in more than three decades — Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Thomas Wright says the party will take the plunge.

"We are recruiting people now and will make a strong push in 2011," Wright says. "We believe with some grassroots work we can make inroads in Salt Lake City."

Wright declined to offer specific names. Just saying no

Following are some of the names floated as potential challengers to Mayor Ralph Becker in November. None of them are running.

Rocky Anderson • "I'm busy more than full time with High Road for Human Rights."

Rep. David Litvack • "I love being in the Legislature. I've actually already endorsed [Becker's] re-election."

Luke Garrott • "Right now, I'm not interested in running for mayor."

Nancy Saxton • "I haven't given it any thought."

Deeda Seed • "No, I love my job."

Joe Hatch • "I'm just getting out of this game. I'm not going to jump back in."

Carlton Christensen • "I'm not. The mayor has asked for my support, and I'm fully comfortable with that."

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